The rest of the journey passed in much the same way, with Ayalah wondering feverishly toward the end how Bolladoth had remained a peaceful country all these generations with disagreeable people like Lady Westerly as leaders. She wondered what Greyson had ever seen in this woman; she hoped their engagement had been an arranged one.
When the captain informed them that they were only two days from shore, Ayalah seriously reconsidered her desire to jump overboard and swim the rest of the way. Certainly her armor and weapons would weigh her down, and it wouldn’t be the most dignified way to return home. But, then, she’d never been one for decorum anyway. Now that they were so close, swimming was a much more realistic possibility.
But, she decided finally, she couldn’t do it. She imagined the disapproving frown of Princess Rinnah, the embarrassment her entrance would cause for Lumi. She instead opted to pretend to be seasick suddenly, and so she spent the remainder of the journey looking out over the edge of the ship in merciful quiet, pretending to vomit whenever Lady Westerly or her gaggle of followers grew near.
The quiet lasted until they neared the docks, at which point they were greeted with so much noise, Ayalah thought for a moment that the war had reached Naraloth already. As they disembarked Ayalah realized that what she was hearing was fanfare, trumpets and drums and cheers and feet stomping. What she was hearing was her country welcoming her and her Bolladian companions, with seemingly the entire population of Naraloth lined up by the docks. The roar was astonishing.
Ayalah wondered if proper courtly manners were that she precede the contingent of Bolladians, as Commander and protector, or if she let them go before her, as ambassador and translator. She settled for walking alongside them, holding her head high and looking as serious as she thought a Naralian Commander should look. A royal emissary met them at the road, greeted the Bolladians in their own language, and piled them into waiting carriages that whisked them through the crowd toward the palace.
Ayalah was (of course, she thought sullenly) in the same carriage as Lady Westerly, as was the emissary, who spoke politely for a few minutes to Lady Westerly before becoming quite enthusiastically engaged in conversation with one of the lady’s servingwomen. Ayalah and Lady Westerly did not speak, and Ayalah was satisfied to note that Lady Westerly seemed as interested in looking around Naraloth as Ayalah had been when she’d first arrived in Bolladoth.
They were led immediately to the ceremonial throne room that had been used for Ayalah and Greyson’s citizenship ceremony. The room was similarly packed this time, except now the walls were lined with nobles in addition to the stiff military regiments, and Ayalah was not the one standing on the dais. She noted with a pang that Komma now sat on his father’s throne, looking regal and perfectly at ease in the heavy ceremonial furs and crown. His siblings stood behind him, all of them looking dignified and serious in that way that only someone born into royalty was trained to look. Rin, Ayalah saw, looked radiant as always, her hair, looking as soft as silk, in delicate curls framing her face.
The noise in the room quieted as the ceremony began.
“The king of Naraloth, King Komma the Second, would like to formally welcome…”
Ayalah stifled a yawn. She wondered whether Greyson was already in Olekoth, and if so, whether he’d already met with the king and queen or was being forced to wait, like she’d been made to do in Bolladoth.
“…We understand that you must be fatigued from the long journey,” King Komma was saying, “and so we will adjourn for a few days to give you a chance to rest before we reconvene to discuss…”
There were servants standing around the edges of the hall, waiting to spring into action with platters of finger foods and flutes of a sparkling beverage of some sort. So, Ayalah thought, the Bolladians weren’t going to get a chance to rest, not really. Not until all the nobles had had a chance to introduce themselves, chat (with the Bolladians if they spoke the language, with each other if not), and drink enough of the bubbly drink to feel tingles in their fingertips. Ayalah knew all this from the previous engagements she’d attended. She contented herself with the thought that, at least this time, she could leave soon without anyone being offended.
She quietly made her way to the back of the room and tried to blend in with the walls and the crowd. The ceremony was ending; now the nobles would mill around for a bit, she knew, and then Ayalah could politely take her leave unnoticed. She grabbed a drink and sipped at it absentmindedly as she counted the minutes.
She’d know that tone of mock-command anywhere; she turned and bowed, struggling to hide a smile for the sake of decorum. “Princess Rinnah.”
“How are you enjoying the celebration?”
“It is… quite lovely, thank you, Princess. I am sure our Bolladian visitors feel welcome.”
“I certainly hope so. Would you be so good as to accompany me over here?”
A number of eyes had turned toward them—not because they were interested in Ayalah, she knew, but because Rinnah was so dazzling and charming, everyone loved to watch her. Ayalah dutifully followed the princess through the crowd until she stood before the king, who turned to face her.
She bowed deeply. “Your Majesty.”
“Welcome home, Commander Tarall. Or is that Ambassador Tarall?”
Ayalah flushed and straightened. “I hope I served you well, sire, though the situation was unusual and perhaps unprecedented.”
He laughed and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Commander, you were magnificent.”
She looked up and saw that he was smiling at her with real warmth, as always.
“I would like to hear a full report from you, if you think you would feel up to it tomorrow or the day after.”
“Certainly, Your Majesty.”
He gave her a strange look and opened his mouth as if to speak, but then shook his head. “Tomorrow, then. For now, I hope you enjoy the celebration.” He inclined his head, she bowed, and he turned away.
A soft hand was on her arm, pulling her through the crowd. Rin paused to chat with a few people, then continued weaving through people, stopping to exclaim over a woman’s dress before moving on again. Ayalah followed her obediently, smiling politely when necessary. She was relieved to see that the princess was gradually leading her out of the big hall and toward the courtyard.
They emerged into the fresh air as the sun was beginning to wane, a cool breeze ruffling the leaves of the trees. Spring was in full bloom now, and colorful flowers dotted the garden, pinks and purples and yellows and reds. Some of the trees had clusters of flowers growing on them, too, of varieties Ayalah had never seen before.
“What pretty flowers,” she said, for lack of anything better to say. She was dismayed to see that they were not alone in the courtyard; a dozen nobles were scattered along the paths, talking quietly in pairs or trios or—in at least one case—very obviously flirting in what little privacy the shrubs afforded.
“Do you like them?” Rin smiled. “I planted many of them myself. These,” she pointed to some pink flowers, “were imported from the Naralian Isles. Those over there,” she pointed to another bunch of pink flowers that were, as far as Ayalah could tell, identical to the others, “are native to the two highest peaks of the northern mountains. They only grow for a few weeks each year. Aren’t they lovely?”
“Er, yes, very unique,” Ayalah tried.
Rin led the way leisurely through the garden, the usual handful of servants shadowing her. “The tiny red ones on that tree are Miltinian, as I’m sure you know, and the orange ones over here are local, from a nearby farm.”
“Um,” Ayalah said.
“Ooh, and those white ones—do you see them over there? No, behind that shrub, yes, those—those are a mystery. They’ve been in the family for generations, but I can’t figure out where we got them. Nobody seems to have seen them before. They’re my favorite, though. Aren’t they exquisite?”
Ayalah realized with a shock that she recognized the white flowers. They definitely had a unique look to them, with five petals fanning outward from a pink center, each petal the size of one of Ayalah’s daggers. Very impressive flowers, but surely more impressive because Ayalah recognized them. She stopped in front of them, trying to figure out where she’d seen them before.
“The enchanted forest.”
“The enchanted forest,” Ayalah repeated. “That’s where I’ve seen these flowers before.” She didn’t add that she’d only seen them on one specific wizard-inhabited tree.
Rin stared at her. “You’ve seen them before?”
“What enchanted forest?”
“The one north of Miltinoth. East of Bolladoth.”
“It’s enchanted? I thought that was just one of those children’s bedtime stories.”
Ayalah smiled. “So did I.”
“How strange that these flowers should have come from there.” Rin looked skeptical.
“Yes.” Stranger than you realize, Ayalah wanted to add.
Rin took her by the arm again. By now, they were out of earshot of the other nobles. “Ayalah,” she said quietly, “I was so upset, I heard about the ship and Roran and I thought you’d—” Her voice wobbled.
“Are you going to cry every time we walk through this courtyard?” Ayalah teased. But she stopped walking and grew serious. “I’m sorry you worried about me unnecessarily. I was unable to get word to you.”
“Worried about you? We grieved for you, Ayalah.”
This surprised her. “Grieved?”
“What really happened?”
“I…” She started walking again, as if the movement of her feet would lessen her shame, her guilt. “We were taken by surprise. Outnumbered, outskilled. Roran was killed and I was taken prisoner. Mathais sent them to find and kill me—Rin, they didn’t even care about Roran. His death was incidental.”
Tears were leaking slowly from the princess’s eyes.
“But I gave them a fake name, and they sold me as a slave in Hodaroth.” How could she describe slavery to a princess? She decided she couldn’t. “Anyway, I ended up in the Hodarian military until Greyson and I escaped, and we ended up in Bolladoth.”
“It sounds awful,” Rin whispered.
They had stopped walking again, and now they stood in the shade of a large tree.
“It was,” Ayalah admitted.
Rin threw her arms around Ayalah and squeezed her. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Ayalah returned the hug awkwardly. She wasn’t sure if she should close her eyes while she hugged or keep them open; she settled for looking down at the ground.
Rin pulled back and wiped her tears on the back of her hand. “A warrior doesn’t cry,” she said with a wry smile.
“No,” Ayalah said, and thought, with a surge of affection, but a princess does.